Adversity formed them. But can Acadians continue to avoid assimilation?

JOHN DEMONT March 24 2003


Adversity formed them. But can Acadians continue to avoid assimilation?

JOHN DEMONT March 24 2003




Adversity formed them. But can Acadians continue to avoid assimilation?

NEW BRUNSWICK’S French-speaking Acadian peninsula is a thinly populated corner of Canada. But even on a bleak Tuesday night with a hard rain and thick fog obscuring the distinctive, brightly painted houses that dot the landscape, signs of life are easy to find. In the town of TracadieSheila (pronounced Shyla), locals are waiting for Karaoke Night to heat up at the Deauville, a bar that doesn’t empty out until 4:00 many mornings. Others nearby sit talking car to car—their engines still idling—in the parking lot in front of a bustling restaurant nearby. Over at L’Abat (The Strike), a bowling alley at the east end of town, about 60 have come out to the salon de quilles. They haul on long-necked beer bottles, laugh, talk, even roll the occasional ball down one of the 12 lanes. “I dunno,” says Shirley LeBreton, spraying disinfectant into a pair of size 10 shoes behind the service

counter, when asked why every Acadian hamlet and village seems to have its own bowling alley (L’Abat is home to 140 teams). “It’s easy. It’s fun. And, you know, we like a good time.”

Welcome to the heartland of I’Acadie, home of a distinctive, nearly 400-year-old French culture. People here can trace their language, raucous music and hearty food to settlers from Poitou and Brittany who began arriving in the New World in the early 17th century. Today, 242,000 French-speakers

‘I don’t recall a period where we were ever as strong as we are today. I sense an element of confidence not there 40 years ago.’

live in New Brunswick, some 60,000 of them on the peninsula that stretches 200 km along the province’s eastern coastline from Néguac in the south, up to Miscou Island, then around the northern shore to Bathurst. A further 40,000 Acadians live elsewhere in Atlantic Canada. They’ve been the inspiration for La Sagouine—Antonine Maillet’s play about a resigned, resilient washerwoman of the same name—and Evangeline, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous epic about a pair of doomed lovers.

They’re fictional characters, but their story plays out against a backdrop of reallife events: the poem’s couple is separated when the English order the expulsion of all 13,000 of Nova Scotia’s French-speaking population in 1755. Acadians were hunted down and shipped thousands of kilometres away to France and the United States. Some managed to escape the British soldiers,

hiding in the forests of the province’s interior. Others fled to the French islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, while still others took refuge in New Brunswick, along the Restigouche and Miramichi rivers and along the shores of the Bay of Chaleur. In the late 1700s, those in New Brunswick were joined

by Acadians who had managed to return from exile. In a hostile, English-dominated world, an isolated finger of land jutting into the Gulf of St. Lawrence seemed their best hope for survival.

With time those settlements grew and thrived. But the memory of the Grand

Dérangement—as the diaspora came to be known—dies slowly among a people haunted by history. Last June, Acadians petitioned Queen Elizabeth II to acknowledge that long-ago outrage in October while on the New Brunswick leg of her Golden Jubilee tour of Canada. They were unsuccessful. But anyone

expecting to find a society driven only by a deep sense of grievance should look elsewhere. The peninsula brims with the kind of spirit that has allowed its people to survive no matter what life throws their way. Raymond Losier, Tracadie-Sheila’s long-time mayor, has never regretted returning to his birthplace after attending the University of Moncton 35 years ago. “Everything’s larger than life,” says the 66-year-old former school principal. “Ifyou’ve got a job, there’s no better place in the world to live.”

“If” being the operative word in a place seemingly at another historical crossroads. Losier, in fact, has touched on the essential Acadian quandary—jobs are hard to come by. The winter unemployment rate routinely tops 40 per cent among the residents, descendants of the early Acadians who avoided expulsion or returned from exile. In most cases, they returned to harder country, less suited to farming than the land they had expropriated. It’s still a hard placemany of the ambitious leave the northeastern end of New Brunswick to attend university or take jobs elsewhere. Most never return. Mylène Arseneau, a Grade 12 student at W. A. Losier Polyvalente in Tracadie-Sheila, is typical: she plans to move to Ontario later this year to study to become a veterinary assistant. “I want to see other places,” says the 17-year-old. “There just aren’t many opportunities here.” Others who leave prefer to stay in places like Dieppe, a booming, largely French-speak-

ing satellite of Moncton, 250 km south of Tracadie-Sheila.

The upshot: the school’s student population has decreased by nearly one-third since 1994. That decline—the result also, in part, of families being much smaller than in the past—is a dramatic version of what is happening elsewhere on the peninsula. Caraquet, for instance, the self-proclaimed cultural capital of VAcadie, had a population of 4,653 in 2001—211 fewer than five years earlier. The region, like many rural parts of Atlantic Canada, is stagnating.

The New Brunswick government has poured $20 million into the area in the past four years to improve its prospects. The province wants to diversify the local economy into manufacturing, tourism and hightech. But luring innovative, forward-looking businesses to such an out-of-the-way

spot can be a hard sell. “It’s going to take 10 years [to turn things around],” acknowledges Tory Premier Bernard Lord. “I’d love to be able to do it in two. But we have to be realistic, and these things take time.”

Still, the time has come for a number of Acadians. The community can brag about vibrant Acadian-owned businesses. Moncton-based Assumption Life, a 100-year-old financial institution, has grown to the point where it now has $2 billion in assets under management. Their political clout is increasing, thanks to the 14 Acadian MLAs in the province’s 44-person Tory caucus. Most of all, they can feel good about those who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. Take Bruno Godin, the son of illiterate parents who is now managing editor of LAcadie Nouvelle, a French-language daily based in Caraquet. “It’s amazing,” he

says, “how much progress we’ve made in just a generation.”

Success hasn’t been easy. The Acadians had to weather Leonard Jones, who, as mayor of Moncton, imposed English-only policies in the late 1960s and early 70s. They also had to wait out the anti-French Confederation of Regions party, New Brunswick’s official Opposition in the early 1990s, before it imploded. But they could also thank Louis Robichaud, the province’s first elected Acadian premier, who, in the 1960s, improved schools and services for marginalized communities and made New Brunswick Canada’s first, and still only, officially bilingual province.

More recently, Lord has pushed linguistic reforms guaranteeing French-speaking residents more rights and powers. The measures also ensure Acadians are entitled to attend French-speaking schools and receive

health care in their native language. No wonder Donald Savoie, an Acadian economist at the University of Moncton, who is also one of the province’s leading thinkers and writers, is enthusiastic. “I don’t recall a period where we were ever as strong as we are today,” he says. “I sense an element of confidence in Acadians not there 40 years ago.”

But for those who leave for success in the wider world there’s a downside. Can upwardly mobile Acadians hold onto their language and culture in bigger, Englishdominated centres, watching Jerry Springer on television, reading English newspapers, often living with a spouse who can only parler a couple of words in French? The experience of their distant relatives in the United States makes many wonder. The English-ordered expulsion for refusing to pledge allegiance to the British Crown left

many of the 10,000 exiles scattered around North America and Europe. Louisiana, where they first landed in 1765, was arguably the only place where they were truly welcomed. Today, an estimated one million Americans—still mostly in Louisiana— can claim Acadian ancestry. But the language is dying, and even the hardy Cajun culture seems to be disappearing into the American melting pot.

So far, New Brunswick’s Acadians have largely been able to withstand the forces of assimilation. In the province, just 20,000, or eight per cent of those who list French as their mother tongue, no longer speak it in the home. But in Nova Scotia, where the descendants of those French speakers who hid in the woods to avoid the soldiers or returned from exile on condition of swearing allegiance to the English monarch now live, the numbers of those losing their language have grown to 45 from 31 per cent since 1971. Acadians know where that can lead— they’ve already witnessed what happened to the village ofWest Chezzetcook, N.S. A century ago, nearly 1,000 Acadians lived nesded between the salt marshes and the Atlantic Ocean on the province’s eastern shore. Today, even though some cultural events draw crowds, few in the village still speak French. “It’s sad,” says Judy Bellefontaine, a volunteer at the tiny Acadia House Museum, who also has Acadian roots. “Especially when you hear people speaking in a derogatory way about French when they don’t know they’re Acadian themselves. It’s heartbreaking.”

For now, at least, the old ways are still treasured on the Acadian peninsula, where each summer thousands crowd the local festivals. “Around here, we know who we are,” declares Father Zoël Saulnier, a 69-year-old Catholic priest from Tracadie-Sheila. “We’re

secure in our Acadian identities.” He says that means continuing to make church and the family the centre of life. It means speaking a language which in many parts of the province still sounds little different from the speech in Poitou and Brittany where their ancestors were born. (One notable exception is the Moncton area, where a French-English patois known as chiac is commonly spoken.) Acadian singers and musical groups are popular in the outside world. Time-honoured traditions like rughooking and folk art continue to enjoy a loyal following. And Acadians—with some justification—are steadfast in their belief that they simply have more fun than their staid, stolid Anglo neighbors.

But the question is, for how much longer can they hold onto those things that make them Acadian? Musical artists, like Prince Edward Island’s traditional song-and-dance group Barachois, worry about what will happen once fashions change at folk festivals. Intellectuals like Herménégilde Chiasson, a writer, painter, photographer and filmmaker from Caraquet who won the 1999 Governor General’s Award for poetry, fear that the community’s artists and thinkers may have lost their fizz now that they no longer have to prove their culture’s legitimacy. “We’re in the midst of a crisis of ideas,” he declares. “Where are the writers, the groundbreaking essays, novels and movie scripts? When we had to fight for recognition there was more tension. And when there’s tension, there’s energy.”

Alarmist? Perhaps not for a people waging a four-century battle for survival, who have gradually seen pieces of their life and culture disappear. Consider their food. The newer generation still knows how to make the old-style, stick-to-your ribs Acadian dishes like cod and potatoes and blood pudding. But even in Acadian strongholds like Tracadie-Sheila, culinary trends eventually change. Ask where a visitor can go for some regional delicacies and locals will direct you to La Crêpe Bretonne, a restaurant in Paquetville, 30 km away. “We serve Acadian food once a week,” says Edouard Thériault. “There just doesn’t seem to be the demand.” True, people want low-fat meals these days. But it’s still a metaphor for a society stubbornly trying to keep its way of life intact as the rest of the world closes in. I?]

Becky Harris